Mindfulness and meditation are concepts that appear very similar and are often confused. The key distinction is whether you are intending to simply observe what is happening in your mind (mindfulness) or are intending to change how your mind is functioning (meditation). Both potentially have such outcomes as increased relaxation, peace of mind, or increased sense of spiritual connection to the universe. There are many forms of meditation, but the common theme is that the person meditating is practicing how to keep her attention on one stimulus only, whether it be a visual stimulus, her breath, a sound, a tactile stimulus, or a mental image or thought. When her mind gets distracted and her focus of attention switches to something else, the meditator pays as little attention to the distraction as possible and quickly brings her focus of attention back to the originally selected stimulus (breath, etc.).
For example, she decides to focus on the breath coming into her nose and leaving from her mouth during every breath cycle. She will calm her mind, start breathing normally and focus her attention on her breath as much and for as long as she can. When her mind becomes distracted and her attention is drawn to something else, like a perception, a thought, a mental image, a feeling, or a body sensation, she labels the distracting stimulus as “thinking” and quickly returns her attention to her breath. As much as possible, she does not spend any time identifying exactly what the distracting stimulus is, or adding additional thoughts or emotional reactions about the distracting stimulus, to the point that the focus of her attention becomes more on the distracting stimulus than it is on her breath. This process of just saying “thinking” and not dwelling on the distraction is similar to the “brush pass” technique that spies use to exchange something with someone, i.e., they brush against someone and engage in so little contact with the other person that it is difficult for observers to tell that anything has been exchanged between them.
This is often called “letting go” meditation, as if the meditator is learning to “let go” of distracting thoughts, similar to what people mean when they say they wish they could push away, stop, or let go of negative thoughts and images coming into their mind. However, a more accurate way of describing the nature of meditation is that the meditator is learning how “to not hold on” to the distracting thought. For example, suppose that I show you a ball that I am holding in my hand, and ask you why gravity is not causing the ball to fall to the ground? Most likely you would say, “because you are holding onto it!” In the same way, thoughts and images come into our mind on a regular basis but they will not stay long unless we are holding on to them in some way, such as paying attention to them, identifying them, or thinking about them and adding additional thoughts or feelings to the original thought or image.
For example, an image of a school shooting comes into your mind, and you either go back to what you were already focusing on, in which case the image of the school shooting soon leaves your (conscious) mind, or you focus on it, feel horrified, remember additional school shootings you have seen on the news, worry about children you know who are going to school who could be shot, etc., and the expanded image stays in your mind, now having grown to the size of a story, and your original focus is lost completely.
When mindfulness is occurring, there is no attempt to increase your focus of attention on anything and there is no attempt to change how much you focus on any particular stimulus, but rather you simply observe or notice whatever comes into your mind. When you are focusing on your breath or a body sensation, you notice that. When you are focusing on something you hear or see in the environment, you notice that. When your imagination starts generating images of possible catastrophes that might occur in the future, you observe that. You make no attempt to focus on anything other that what is occurring in your mind. You make no attempt to change anything about how your mind is operating, but rather notice whatever comes into your mind.
An important distinction is that when you are practicing mindfulness, you are aware that you are noticing whatever is occurring in your mind, but you do not get so absorbed in it that you forget it is just something in your mind and you start thinking that it is something actually occurring in the world. For example, you get so absorbed in a movie that you forget you are in a theater watching images on a screen and instead have the sense that you are actually in the movie scene. Practicing mindfulness during a movie might diminish your enjoyment, because if you remain aware that you are simply watching images on a screen, you no longer become emotionally involved in the content of the movie. It is the difference between thinking “I am so angry that this person is being assaulted” and thinking “anger is present in my mind as a response to my perception that someone is being assaulted in the movie”.
Focusing on your breath is common to both meditation and relaxation techniques, but in the latter case, you do not simply observe the breath as it occurs, but rather you attempt to change the breathing to a slower, deeper pattern of breathing (diaphragmatic or belly breathing) in order to increase relaxation in the body. This method is meant to counter the increased body tension that occurs when we experience the fight-flight-freeze response to perceived danger. Of course, there are many other ways to increase the relaxation in your body, not just diaphragmatic breathing, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), using guided visual imagery, or using such words as “heavy” or “warm” to induce more relaxation in the body.